Saturday, September 1, 2018

Houdini, David Abbott and Omaha

Houdini and David Abbott

The more I research Houdini, the more fascinated I am at all the connections he has to various parts of the country (and even the world). Case in point is Omaha, Nebraska. As it turns out, Omaha is the first city that Houdini performed in after meeting Martin Beck in St. Paul MN. Beck, was a theater owner and booker, and he witnessed Houdini's feats at a Beer Garden in St. Paul. On March 14th, Houdini received a telegram from Martin Beck sent from Chicago. The telegram says, "You can open Omaha, March 26th, at $60, will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." Houdini records in his journal "This wire changed my whole life's journey."

Notice that Beck says, "will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." I wondered about this statement because Beck was supposed to have seen Houdini in St. Paul. Then I remembered that the story is often told that Beck suggested to Houdini to 'drop the magic, keep the escapes and the box trick'. This story first appears in the book HOUDINI His Life Story by Harold Kellock and is repeated in later biographies. It's also pretty accurate as to what happened with Houdini's act. So Omaha, would have been Beck's chance to see the NEW act, and based the potential of a future tour on that. Omaha then begins Houdini's new career and new life.

Here is a glimpse into that 1899 performance in Omaha. Houdini was performing at The Orpheum and on April 8th, a clever situation took place. The manager of the Orpheum had a bet with 5 businessmen in town that they couldn't produce a pair of cuffs that would stop Houdini. One of them came up with something I've not heard of before, a pair of cuffs with a 'time lock' on it. According to the article in the April 8, 1899 edition of Omaha World Herald, it would take no less than 60 minutes to get out of this pair of cuffs due to the time lock. Houdini was free in 4 minutes!

Fast forward one year, April 1900, Houdini was back on Omaha.  Way back in St. Paul a year prior, the act was The Houdinis. But now the act is HOUDINI, with Bess assisting in the Metamorphosis, when it was actually presented. Instead, Houdini, now The Handcuff King, was taking on challengers all over the country. Her role, which was pointed out in The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, had been greatly reduced.

A side note to Houdini's visit in 1900, according to the Omaha World Herald April 20th, 1900 edition, Houdini was taken to a party by his many fans in town. While there he presented numerous magic tricks, card tricks and even his East Indian Needle mystery.

Houdini would return to Omaha numerous times. But during one of those encounters he met David P. Abbott. Mr. Abbott was an amateur magician and popular among professional magicians because of his inventiveness. Mr. Abbott is responsible for teaching the Floating Ball to both OKITO and Thurston. He didn't invent it, but he embellished it and made it the popular trick it became. Abbott also wrote an amazing manuscript called, "David P. Abbott's Book of Mysteries." This was a manuscript almost lost, almost never published. The dramatic story of it's eventual publication is chronichled in Volume 2 of The House of Mystery by Teller and Todd Karr (a must read). By the way, the House of Mystery refers to Abbott's home in Omaha that was totally tricked out in order to perform unbelievable magic. The book shares the various secrets of the home.  Harry Kellar visited the home at one point and was so taken by the magic, that he asked Abbott to help him do the same thing to his Los Angeles home!

One of Abbott's greatest creations was The Talking Tea Kettle. Even Harry Kellar owned one of these and loved it. And it's the Talking Tea Kettle that brings us back to Houdini.


You will notice that the photo at the top of the page is of Houdini and David P. Abbbott. They were friends at one time.  However, that friendship became rather rocky when  an October 1922 article that Houdini wrote for POPUAR RADIO Magazine, included an exposure of Abbott's Famous Talking Tea Kettle Mystery. Abbott was furious with the exposure. Houdini later claimed it was not his doing but an editor for the magazine who included the secrets.

Now before I get too far into things, I've got to back up to explain some facts that aren't well known. First, the Talking Tea Kettle was actually the creation of a man named Phillip Meyers, an inventor who was interested in magic, but later became interested in and started creating effects for fake spirit mediums. This is according to Todd Karr, one of the authors of the book The House of Mystery. The Tea Kettle that Meyers built however, didn't get much use and it was eventually gifted from Meyers to his friend David Abbott. Mr. Abbott recognized the amazing effect but streamlined the methodology, which is why it is now known as David Abbott's Talking Tea Kettle.

Remember, Abbott was furious with Houdini's article. Houdini later made two unusual claims, first he said he purchased the Tea Kettle from an auction of a mediums estate. This statement was false. He actually purchased the Tea Kettle from Clyde Powers the magic dealer who had obtained it from Carl Rosini. This again, is documented on pg 482 of The House of Mystery Volume 2. So Houdini did not buy this from an auction.

Houdini's second statement was, Fraudulent Spirit Mediums were using the Talking Tea Kettle to
swindle and con their clients. This was also false. David Abbott himself stated he never sold a Tea Kettle to any fake medium. I'd like to stop here and offer my opinion. Having seen some of the scrapbooks that Houdini had on mediums and spiritualism, and knowing the volumes of information he collected on the subject, I wouldn't be surprised if he truly thought he picked up this kettle in an auction. Clearly it would be remembering it incorrectly, but it's possible. But the second half of this issue, the claim that mediums had used the Tea Kettle to defraud, is one I'd like to address a bit more. Remember what I said above, Phillip Meyers, the first inventor of a Talking Tea Kettle was making props for Fake Spirit Mediums. Houdini likely was aware of this, and aware of the Tea Kettle's origins. So if you put 2 and 2 together, it is only logical to assume that Tea Kettles were made for fake mediums because Meyers was already in the business of building similar things for that unscrupulous bunch. Of course, the other option is that it's possible Houdini was just using all of this for his own benefit, but I'm actually siding with Houdini on the later point. The first point, of where he got the Tea Kettle, well that could go either way.

The article in Popular Radio titled Ghosts That Talk--By Radio authored by Houdini, really does give an exposure of the Tea Kettle in the body of the article. Actually, the title of the article is exposure enough, lol. But the editor of the magazine spells it out even further. Then the magazine uses photos that they artistically rendered to show the secret workings. I'm sure Houdini merely provided regular untouched photos, it was the magazine that drew in the schematics of the inner workings. Despite the exposure the magazine was actually incorrect in the way they claimed the trick was done. My friend John Cox over at wrote an article on The Tea Kettle Controversy back in 2012, which gives more details on this uncomfortable moment in Houdini's life.


Houdini once again is thrilling audiences at the Orpheum in Omaha. He adds the hanging straitjacket escape this time around. He hangs upside down on September 6th, 1923 from the Omaha World Herald building. The paper gives a great account of his escape and mentions that upon lowering Houdini to the ground he had a 'brief spell of faintness.' The day before the paper was promoting his straitjacket escape and within the small blurb was this little gem, "Houdini is appearing at the Orpheum this week, and announces he may quit the theatrical profession after completing his present tour of the world."


We know Houdini began the new phase of his career in Omaha because of Martin Beck. However, there was another person who was taking credit for this as well.  In the Sept 24th edition of the Omaha World Herald there is an article that says, "Two years ago Harry Houdini, famous the world over as the "handcuff" man, came to Omaha unknown. He became a protege of Dan Baldwin, the strong man and genial police officer, and through his influence was launched upon his present career." Later in the article they reprint, word for word a letter Houdini sent to Baldwin about his tour of Europe. I'm not familiar with Dan Baldwin. A cursory look through the various Houdini bios came up with nothing. Perhaps this will be another case for The Magic Detective, but for now, I hope you enjoyed Houdini's connection to Omaha!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Amazing Professor Cooke Handbill

I have written about this man before, but recently have a new found interest in him because he has become part of my show. First, he became part of my Houdini lecture, but now he is in my new ASTONIFY Show.

Professor Horatio (Harry) Cooke was a remarkable man. He served in the Civil War, he was one of Lincoln's Federal Scouts, he was witness to the assassination of President Lincoln, and later he became a mentor of sorts to Houdini and many other magicians in the Los Angeles area. He was also, one of Harry Kellar's pallbearers.

Harry Cooke had long been forgotten until he was rediscovered by Mark Cannon in 1981. Mark met one of Cooke's daughters while performing at her senior citizen center. In April 2006, Mark wrote a great article in MUM Magazine all about the life of Harry Cooke.

Prior to this rediscovery, Cooke could be found within the pages of The Sphinx and other magic magazines. He was often dubbed 'The Oldest Living Magician in America'. I knew from the Cannon article and from other sources that Harry Cooke performed magic following the end of the Civil War. His favorite trick was the Linking Rings. For a number of years his show was called SPIRITUALISM Without the Aid of Spirits. Well, imagine my surprise as I'm watching the Potter and Potter Auction on Saturday last, and up comes a handbill belonging to none other than Professor Harry Cooke. The moment I saw the name, I jumped and started bidding. It may be one of my most favorite auction wins! Now that I own this wonderful item*, I'm going to alter my Cooke story yet again. And it will help me to adjust the 'spirit' portion of my Astonify Show.

The one thing left that I wonder about is whether or not Harry Cooke was a descendant of the Mayflower Cookes? Given that he was born in Connecticut, I'd say the chances are pretty high.

* I don't actually have possession of this handbill yet. The auction ended Saturday and I just sent my payment in for the item. Unfortunately, I will be gone when this handbill arrives. So I went ahead and posted it now.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Most Famous Magician of All Time

Ask someone who the 'most famous magician' is or was, and you're likely to hear: Houdini, David Copperfield, David Blaine, and maybe even Merlin, if the person is trying to be clever. Certainly all of these individuals are famous and certainly all rank high. But the most famous magician is one you've likely all heard of and yet never heard of. What? Read on.

His name was William Vincent. Surely, you know who I'm talking about now. No? Well, he did not go by his real name. Like many magicians, (myself included), he went by a stage name. And his stage name became so iconic, that even small children today know it. He was known as Hocus Pocus. That's right, the phrase that so many people think of as 'magic words', was actually a magician.

During the reign of King James of England (1603-1625), Vincent was known as "The King's Most Excellent Hocus Pocus." He was a juggler, an artist in legerdermaine. His tricks included the Cups and Balls and the cut and restored 'tape' trick, among others. Vincent began his career in 1619 after receiving a licence 'to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Relme of England and Ireland.'

A book titled, Hocus Pocus Jr. was published in 1634. A short book of 50+ pages, it contains a wealth of knowledge on how to present the Cups and balls and many other wonderful tricks popular during the 17th Century.

The new book, The Secret History of Magic by Peter Lamont and Jim Steinmeyer says that Vincent is the author of the book, Hocus Pocus Jr.. Other sources list the author as anonymous, and still other sources say 'it could possibly have been William Vincent'. 

Many editions of Hocus Pocus Jr. were printed after the original, and apparently each new edition contained new material. Houdini's copy resides in the Library of Congress and is available to view or download as a .pdf. Here is the link.

William Vincent died a few years after the publication of Hocus Pocus Jr.. according to the website (the actual site is long gone, but you can see the original in the Internet Archive site)